“They happened in your own backyard,” a student said.
Asian students at Columbia University are criticizing the school’s silence following the recent murders of two Asian women in Manhattan, which they contrast with President Lee C. Bollinger’s Feb. 25 statement denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Why does no one care about the Asian community until someone cries for help?” a business student wrote in an anonymous feedback box created by Alan Zhao, co-president of the Asian Business Association at Columbia Business School.
Zhao organized a town hall Feb. 22 attended by 50 people, including about 15 administrators and a faculty member. Many attendees discussed the distress at the university’s silence following the deaths this year of Michelle Go and Christina Yuna Lee. Bollinger’s statement emailed Feb. 25 by Columbia News criticizing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, was followed March 2 by a second statement against the war.
Zhao said he was frustrated. “You make a statement on world affairs—that’s great, but the deaths of Asian women, which happened back to back, they happened in your own backyard.”
Hate crimes against people of Asian descent in Manhattan have spiked in the last year. Zhao added that “it’s frustrating because we are very much the minority in the United States, but in higher education and the fields we are entering into, we are overrepresented. So how do we navigate the space where we are overrepresented here but underrepresented there?” While Asians make up only about 5.4% of the U.S. population and about 11.4% New York City residents, they represent 22% of the students at Columbia Business School, where two-thirds of the enrollees are white, 12% are Black, 9% are Hispanic and 1% are Indigenous and Pacific Islanders.
In response to emailed questions, Jessica Pavone, executive director of communications at University Life, said the university has previously addressed anti-Asian bias. She pointed to Columbia’s statements in the last academic year related to bias incidents related to the pandemic and another following the Atlanta spa shootings.
“Part of University Life’s work is to continuously monitor the news landscape to ensure we have awareness of incidents that might impact some or all of our student community,” Pavone said in an email. “We share a goal ensuring that the University supports the students most directly impacted.”
The university’s silence amounts to anti-Asian racism in itself, according to Sahnah Lim, an assistant professor at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, who specializes in health disparities among immigrant survivors of gender-based violence. “It’s institutional-level racism to deny racism against Asian students,” she said in an interview. “Not acknowledging the discrimination against Asians is perpetuating the model minority myth and anti-Asian racism.”
Jae Lee, internal vice president of the Korean Students Association and a junior at Columbia, said he was devastated by the deaths of Go in January and Lee last month and frustrated by his inability to get a response from the university.
“I had a meeting with the Multicultural Affairs of Undergraduate Student Life,” Lee said in an interview. “They agreed that the university should take a stance, but they ultimately told us that we should be the ones doing something about it.” Fourteen students from 11 Asian student groups attended an open meeting on Feb. 27 and began writing a letter to the university demanding actions.
The mental health of Asian students in higher education has historically been overlooked, consistent with the model minority myth, Lim said. “Any kind of office of diversity affairs at a higher-level institution is often solely focused on African American or LatinX,” she said. “There needs to be additional room and some culturally tailored forms of support for the Asian students. At the university level, they should feel the responsibility for not just their academic wellness but student well-being, and that they should be done equally across other racial ethnic groups. Just continuing to focus on, for example, the murder of Freddy Gray, without paying any attention to deaths faced by another minority group is not diversity.”
Gahye Koo, co-president of Columbia Business School Asian Business Association, said that a common cultural upbringing of Asian people has made them especially vulnerable to discriminations and racism. “We are taught to internalize injustices done to us rather than to speak out,” she said in an interview.
The university is “reactive rather than proactive,” Koo said. As an example, she cited the business school’s practice of sending out an email acknowledging the Lunar New Year 10 days after celebrations have ended. “Why aren’t we at the forefront of their minds when they think of diversity?” Koo said.
Koo and Zhao are implementing structural changes within the Business School until they graduate this May. Currently, they are working with the Office of Career Advancement to equitably recognize April as the AAPI month with appropriate professional development and community events, as a natural follow to Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March.
Erin Choi, president of the Korean Students Association, said that this is just the beginning of their organizing. “A statement is the bare minimum,” Choi said in an interview. “We can talk about other resources that are not here but without having that bare minimum, we’d be missing the point.”
Grace Huntley, a psychotherapist, says that while community organizing by students is important, the responsibility for diversity must not fall exclusively on students. “Coalitions and community are important, but they are not enough. That’s putting the burden of protections on the community affected, and because of the way racism is systemic, there’s only so much push-up you can do from that affected space.”